Water Efficiency Pays with Environmental Entrepreneurs’ Mary Solecki

May 20, 2015

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome back to Green is Good, and we’re so honored to have with us today Mary Solecki. She’s the Western States Advocate for Environmental Entrepreneurs. Welcome to Green is Good, Mary. MARY SOLECKI: Thank you for having me on. JOHN SHEGERIAN: We’re so glad to have you on today. Environmental Entrepreneurs is a very important organization. I happen to be a member. We’re thrilled to have you on to further message all the great work the Environmental Entrepreneurs are doing. Before we get talking about E2, though, I want you to share a little bit about the Mary Solecki story leading up to joining Environmental Entrepreneurs and your journey in sustainability. MARY SOLECKI: I have been working in consulting for some small clean tech startups for a number of years, since about 2008. I got started with those ventures when I was doing my MBA through Presidio Graduate School, a small private school in San Francisco that specializes in sustainable management. I’ve been with E2 for about five years. I was originally just focused on some transportation issues and working on some long-based problems in California on using more alternative fuels. Now I’ve started working on a lot greater issues across the state. I’m originally from the Midwest, from Indiana originally, so, like a lot of folks, I’m a transplant to California. I’ve been loving working on these kinds of issues on the west coast. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Today, we’re going to be talking about both the Environmental Entrepreneurs and also about water efficiency, one of the most important and hottest topics in the world of sustainability right now. MARY SOLECKI: That’s absolutely right. JOHN SHEGERIAN: For our listeners out there, though, that want to learn more about Environmental Entrepreneurs and hopefully join that great organization, you can go to www.e2.org. For our listeners who haven’t heard our other episodes centered around Environmental Entrepreneurs, can you tee it up a little bit, Mary, before we get talking more specifically about water, can you share a little bit about Environmental Entrepreneurs with our listeners? MARY SOLECKI: E2 is a national community of volunteer business leaders that want to use their business expertise to guide and shape better environmental policy. Our members come from all across different business sectors. We have about 850 individuals as members. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Wow, and it’s coast to coast. MARY SOLECKI: It is indeed. We have members from 49 states. That just shows that we’re really counting. We still don’t have a member in Alaska yet, but I bet if we did a little bit of concerted outreach, we could probably get an Alaskan member. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s great. It started in California, correct? MARY SOLECKI: That’s right. It started with two individuals in California named Bob Epstein and Nicole Lederer. The two of them had this vision. At the time, there was actually no business voice for environmental policy. We started in 2000, so back in 2000 it was a completely unique type of voice. We’ve gotten a lot of street cred at this point, moving forward on some of the policy issues that we have. That included what started as the California Clean Cars Bill, and now is a national standard for fuel efficiency. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s right. What other types of issues do you work on and does Environmental Entrepreneurs work on? MARY SOLECKI: We work on issues where we see the true environmental and economic gains that can be made simultaneously. That includes reducing fossil fuel dependence and instead using renewable and domestic sources of energy, something that creates jobs right here in the United States and can’t be exported. We also work on a variety of other topics, like what we’re talking about today, water, on oceans, waste management, port modernization and a lot more. Since we’re a volunteer organization, we’re in part guided by issues that our members may bring to us and wish to work on in their own states or regions. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Gotcha. Today we’re going to be talking about water efficiency pays. We’re both sitting in California today. Can you share where we’re at right now? Where are we with regards to this horrible drought, and what are some of the solutions? We love having great thought leaders like you on the show and talking about solutions. Give us some hope today. Share with our listeners what they can be doing and how we can find hope and how we can get involved and hopefully effectuate some change here in California and more than California, across the United States and across the world when it comes to the water drought issues that we have. MARY SOLECKI: Sure, absolutely. Where we are today is we’re in the fourth year of a really big drought. We were hoping for an extremely wet El Nino winter, and as anybody that is on the west coast can testify, we haven’t seen enough rainfall out of the sky. It wasn’t even really a winter here this year. Actually, instead of getting even a little bit better, our issue got a little bit worse this year. Governor Brown just went to do the annual snowpack measuring, and he actually walked out onto a completely brown and dry meadow, a meadow that’s normally covered with serious snowpack. That really shows the extreme scarcity problem that we’ve got at this point, especially with the growing population. The thing is that we do actually have enough water in this state to meet the needs that we have between our agricultural and our business and our residential needs, it’s just that we’re not necessarily using the water in the most efficient way possible. It’s going to mean that everybody across the state needs to think about little ways and big ways that they can be more efficient with their water use. There’s a lot of things that people can do in their homes. That includes changing out showerheads to be more low-flow shower heads. We’ve done that in my own household, and we’ve actually been really pleased about the fact that it’s still really good water pressure that comes out. Don’t despair; it doesn’t mean you have to give up a really nice, hot shower. Luckily, these technologies are coming a long way in that kind of sense. The state is going to be offering a lot of really great rebates for switching out your toilets, if you want to go to a low-flow toilet. At my own house, for example, we got rid of our lawn last year, and the state is going to be offering rebates to get rid of lawns. Lawns are big users of water, and we installed some drought-tolerant landscaping that we’re tickled with because we don’t have to mow it every week, it uses almost no water, and we think it looks really nice. Our city actually gave us a rebate. Those rebates are going to become more standard across the entire state now. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Mary, I keep hearing the term water tech. What does that mean to you, and what should that mean to our listeners when water tech starts becoming more part of our vernacular? MARY SOLECKI: Sure. Water tech is the group of entrepreneurs that are innovating new water efficiency solutions. It’s kind of analogous to clean tech, but it’s just focused on water. It’s the application of today’s technology to water solutions, and it makes entrepreneurial pursuits really advanced right now. It includes a lot of data management type of technologies, something like using smart meters to know when and where people and businesses are using water and how it could be used more efficiently. For agriculture, it can mean using more efficient irrigation systems and centers to tell a farmer when a crop needs to be watered and how much, rather than just automatically watering every Tuesday and Thursday for two hours. A lot of these data centers also come with their own apps that you can receive real-time information about your company’s or your home’s or your farm’s water use right on your phone and know when and where you could be doing better. It’s that really neat application of technology to water efficiency. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Gotcha. For our listeners who just joined us, we’re honored to have with us today Mary Solecki. She’s the Western States Advocate for Environmental Entrepreneurs. You can check out Environmental Entrepreneurs at www.e2.org. We’re talking about water today, and we’re discussing the term water tech with Mary. You were explaining little things we can do that can add up, that can save us water. You save money and create jobs by saving water. What’s the nexus between creating jobs and saving money and saving water? MARY SOLECKI: Sure. I think that it might come with the growth of those kinds of water tech companies that I was just talking about. California is known as a place for innovation and it can create new economies based on using our resources more efficiently, and these kinds of companies can employ a lot of folks. The other thing is that our water use in the state is actually 20 percent of our energy use. It takes a lot of energy for us to move water and then heat it and clean it for people’s consumption. That means that we can save energy, we can save water, and we can create jobs as these new water efficiency companies begin to hire more and more people. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Mary, we’re also the Ag Belt of the United States, maybe the world now. We feed the United States, that’s for sure, given the San Joaquin Valley is so ag-rich. What is this water drought going to mean for the ag. business? Is the ag. business starting to innovate their way out of this problem? What have you seen and heard? MARY SOLECKI: Sure. You’re right, the agricultural aspect is what actually makes this California drought an important issues for the entire country because this means that a huge crop base for the entire country is actually going through a drought. Certainly, we’re seeing more extreme climates and we can expect more drought type of weather across many western states. This is something that all western states are going to need to learn how to deal with. In terms of what the agricultural community is doing to be more water efficient, they’re employing an impressive suite of technologies already, whenever it makes financial sense. Something that we’re doing is we’re trying to assess an innovative financing mechanism to help farmers pay for even better water efficiency technologies. I was talking about some sensors that farmers can deploy so that it tells them when their crop actually needs to be watered, rather than just watering at a routine schedule. Farmers are already deploying some of those technologies, but there’s a lot of other farmers that just need that financial incentive or at least the right financial frame for it to make economic sense for them to deploy those kinds of technologies at their farm. JOHN SHEGERIAN: How about on a bigger scale? I’ve read about this new desalination plant that’s going into San Diego. What’s your thoughts on that as a technology, and what does that do for us in the state? Does that give us hope? Is desalination part of the future, or not really because of the energy needs that desalination also creates? MARY SOLECKI: There’s a lot of different viewpoints on this. Desalination in general is a pretty expensive technology, and like you mentioned, it’s also pretty energy intense. The way we look at desalination, we call it extreme water. I mentioned earlier that there’s actually enough water in the state already for all of our needs, we’re just not using it very efficiently. What we’d like to do is try to become as efficient as possible because that makes a lot of economic sense. Then, if our population rises or if we have already become as efficient as we possibly can and we’re still running into water scarcity issues, I think that’s the right time to enter into the desalination question. I think that starting with desalination before you have the most efficient possible system isn’t a super logical way. It’s taking out more credit card debt before you’ve even looked at whether or not there’s ways that could save some money within your own personal budget. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That brings me to the topic of recycling water. A couple months back, I was flipping the channels and I was watching Jimmy Fallon, and Bill Gates came on with poop water that he was recycling now in Africa. It was fascinating, Mary. Is that the future for us in California, learning to get comfortable with toilet to tap water and recycling our water here in California using the same technology that Bill Gates is using in other parts of the world? MARY SOLECKI: Yes, maybe. I want to say that nobody, even water efficiency people like me, are advocating that anybody drink poop water. JOHN SHEGERIAN: OK. He was drinking it and he had Jimmy Fallon drinking it. He was making a statement and making an impression on the viewers like me. I just want to understand your take on our technology. Can we go from toilet to tap now with the technologies that are out there? Is that part of the solution here in California and beyond? MARY SOLECKI: It may very well be, but there’s even a lot less extreme ways, maybe extreme isn’t a fair statement. There’s a lot more basic ways that we can recycle water. For example, there’s no reason that we all need to be drinking pure, fresh, clean drinkable water. We don’t need to be using this to flush our toilets. Is there any reason you couldn’t use water from your shower, perhaps, and flush your toilet with that? The same goes with watering your landscaping. Is there any reason you couldn’t, perhaps, water your landscaping with water that has just been used by your washing machine, or perhaps by your shower? There’s some really easy, basic ways that we can start to recycle water. Yes, maybe we can deploy some of these super cool technologies that do purify even poop water and send it back to pure drinking standards. That’s entire possible, but there’s even some more basic ways that we can be water-efficient before we get to even that point. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Gotcha. We’re down to the last two minutes or so, Mary. Talk a little bit about Environmental Entrepreneurs. We have a lot of listeners here in the United States and around the world, frankly. How do they get involved with your great organization and use it as a way to both expand their business, but also expand themselves in terms of more connections and getting to their goals faster because of all the resources that Environmental Entrepreneurs offers? MARY SOLECKI: As I mentioned, we’re a national community. Business leaders from across the country that might wish to work on environmental issues spend some of their volunteer time. We provide that platform opportunity and we do advocacy trips to state capitols and to Washington, D.C. You can meet with your state and your federal representatives and let them know how you’re feeling about some particular policies. You can help shape our advocacy platform in that same way. Since we’re a national community, we provide that kind of networking opportunity with other likeminded business leaders, people that want to help grow our economy and help shape better environmental policy. We provide a connection for people to be able to meet those individuals. It also turns out that it’s great for your business, that kind of networking. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Thank you, Mary. Thank you for your time today. Thank you for the great work you’re doing at Environmental Entrepreneurs, and especially thank you for your great tips on how we could all be more water-efficient today. To learn more about Environmental Entrepreneurs and all the great work Mary and her colleagues are doing, please go to www.e2.org. Thank you, Mary, for being an Environmental Entrepreneurs and water efficiency evangelist. You are truly living proof that green is good.